An ontological journey of the word Design

Design has become widely embraced in our contemporary world because it is associated with innovation, creativity and ingenuity. In general, Design is viewed as creating a competitive advantage, so many large companies have purchased independent design firms like Ideo, Maya, and Lunar to extend the value of business capabilities with creativity and innovation. As Vilem Flusser stated in his article On the Word Design: An Etymological Essay, design combines the ” . . . coincidence of splendid ideas arising from science, art and business, which, overlapping creatively, have been mutually effective.” (1)

With the acceleration of design’s importance, many fields of study are embracing human-centered methods and a large part of the employment market seems to position themselves as designers who have been exposed to design thinking – or that everything they do can be linked to design. This trend supports Herbert Simon’s position in his 1960s book The Sciences of the Artificial, which took an expansive view stating “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (2) This elegant statement succinctly simplifies the meaning of design as creating preferable outcomes. Sabine Junginger framed Design at even more elementally stating that ” . . . design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human and an essential determinant of the quality of human life. It affects everyone in every detail of every aspect of what they do throughout each day. As such, it matters profoundly.” (3)

Paul Rand famously stated that, “Everything is design. Everything!” While this is a high water mark for the visibility and value of design, it may be a low water mark for the role of design practitioners in an ever-expansive definition of design. If design can be connected to everything, and if everyone is a designer, then what are the bounds and the physics of design?

Design as a historical conundrum

Design has become a seductive conundrum, meaning everything and nothing. In Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, he describes how in one context, zero means nothing, but means everything in another. How can the same object mean polar opposites? This is why the Greeks banned the concept of zero and the Hindu’s worshipped it. Zero was a daunting intellectual riddle that pitted the oriental East with the modern West and even faith against reason. Design seems to have the same power – and problems.

At a macroeconomic level, design is a noun referring to the purpose, planning, or intention that exists behind an action, experience, or material object. It is a plan that maps relationships that achieve a purpose and focuses intentions and actions to achieve a “preferred outcome.” At a microeconomic level, design is a verb referring to combining creativity, prototypes and production to define how something looks and functions for consumption by markets. Design has found it hard to connect macroeconomic and microeconomic together.

Design is historically and currently considered a purely microeconomic creative act through mediums such as graphic, industrial/product, fashion, or lighting design. It also is used to modify whole fields or concepts such as business design, organizational design and computational design. The question is, which word is modifying the other? On one hand, design plays a supporting role for the medium; however, on the other, the medium modifies the word design. In either case, it seems as if design needs the prefix “concept” + “design,” which highlights that design is a hybrid idea that transcends the concept it is modifying. The question is what is the role of design as a modifier?

The etymology of design is intriguing. The earliest root was Designare, a Latin compound word : to point out, and signare meant to mark. The word was used to mean “mark out, to point out, to devise, to designate or appoint.” So there were three meanings to the word based on context. In the 1540s, Designo came into use in Italian with similar meanings: “to contrive/plot/intend, to plan/outline/form a scheme, and to draw/paint/embroider.” In the 1580s, Desseign came into use in Middle French as a noun to define “a purpose, to project and to design.” Over 80 years, the definition evolved to mean “to draw an outline, an artistic principle, a creation, a fashion as well as a plan and adoption of a means to an end.” In the 1670s, the term finally appears in English as the adjective Designing, meaning “artful and/or scheming.” In 1854, Design was rehabilitated to mean “an applied art form,” which today is associated with many types of design, but frequently associated with creativity or graphic forms.

Design, Ornamentalism and the Support of Industry

An engaging article, Design: On the Global (R)Uses of a Word by Arindam Dutta explored the meaning of the word design. He focused on the 1854 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London, imagined by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to celebrate the empire’s position as a world leader in the arts. Design was viewed as a contrivance to bring order to an unruly global marketplace.

Design became associated with ornamentalism, visual aesthetics and mechanical reproduction to further the goals of industrialization and commerce. ” . . . ornamentalist refers to the nature for the purpose of learning the contrivances by which she has adorned her works, that he may be able to apply the same forms and modes of beauty to man’s handicraft . . .” Dutta stated that “Design, it can thus be argued, is an epistemic device through which power is transformed from natural forms of agency into an impetus for socialization.” (4)

Design and ornamentalism became synonymous which reduced it to decoration making it hard to patent ” . . . by its ‘non useful’ characteristic . . . used by manufacturers only because of its easier procedural requirements.” (5) John Heskett, the economist and design historian in his book Design and the Creation of Value puts this in more direct economic terms that in neoclassical economics “Rivalous/excludable goods are most valued in neoclassical theory – for they are seen as wealth-creating. The view of design as something that in economic terms is an antithesis, non-excludable and non-rivalrous, something that can be copied at will and difficult to cover into a proprietary good, consigns it to an economic limbo.” (6)

Design contains a broad universe of intention and action whose meaning is based on context, which makes it a powerful concept. As stated earlier, design is usually connected to a medium or concept, rather than being standalone. When design is used alone, it becomes the ultimate abstraction. Dutta stated that “Design is neither an art nor science; it is only a rough approximation – without any proper frame of verifiability – or both.” (7) He further discerned art from design by stating ” . . . . and it is here we find its defining paradox – as opposed to art, design must produce effects that are as if unintended in objects that are otherwise entirely intentional, indeed formed by other intentions that are otherwise strong. . . Art has no such sanction, design is a useless facility appended to a useful object, while art is a useless facility appended to a useless object.” (8)

Flusser proposed the maturation of the word design involved craftiness connecting the word to art and technique, which broke it into two branches ” . . . that alienated from each other – the scientific quantifiable ‘hard’ and the aesthetic, qualitative ‘soft.’” The elasticity of the meaning of design based on context creates ” . . . any situation in which art and technique combine forces to smooth the way to a new culture.” (9) As we shall see, design is hard to measure in purely quantitative terms since it is so firmly associated with qualitative outcomes. In many ways, design is a conundrum of intent and outcomes as it cannot be clearly mapped like fields of engineering.

In 1965, the Argentinean architect and painter Tomás Maldonado wrote about the challenges that continue to face design as a discipline. “There is nothing less comfortable than being obliged to exercise an unlimited profession in a world of strictly limited professions. In other words, to exercise a profession whose beginning and end, whose own territory and that of the neighboring profession is unknown…. [One cannot ever rid oneself] of the unconfessed feeling of illegitimate appropriation.” (10) Nigel Cross, a contemporary of Maldonado, felt this generality of design which he called a “designerly ways of knowing” was a strength as more universal forms of knowledge became amplified by an ability of a designer independent from their specific design practice.

Design as providing more, but in a subservient role

Clive Dilnot highlighted the devaluation of design by stating ” . . . if markets and products are as constant as depicted in Neo-classical theory at best reduced design to a trivial activity concerned with minor, superficial differentiation of unchanging commodities, a role, indeed, that it does frequently perform. At worst, it contradicts the whole validity of design.” (11)

The industrialized world has historically designated design as its own activity by creating a division of labor model called “plan, design, build.” Daniel Burnham, the architect of the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893 and then the Plan of Chicago in 1909, created the profession of urban planning. In this model, there are “planners” who develop the goal and intent of a city, which would form the strategy. “Designers” would interpret the strategy by using their creativity to concept out the expression of the plan through a myriad of forms. Then “builders” would bring the design to fruition through specifications and construction. This model fit perfectly into an industrial model of efficiency and accountability, but reduced design to creativity and expression – a form of ornamentalism that created a total design to make a series of parts feel like a unified whole.

Design in many cases is viewed by organizations as a “value add” or the secret sauce applied on top of something else, rather than being inherent in the intent of a plan. However, whether design is inherent or added onto something to create value may be academic. Heskett clearly stated that “Value is thus nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, nor an independent thing existing by itself. It is the judgement economizing men make about the importance of the goods at their disposal for the maintenance of their lives and well-being. Hence, value does not exist outside the consciousness of men.” (12) So, economic value is not core to design, but through its application and utility, which in many cases is a byproduct of the intent of a designer.

Design as a tacit rather than a shared skill

Why is there so much diversity in the way design is understood and practiced? The proliferation of professions is one reason, as their skills and outputs contextualize general design principles and knowledge to specific outcomes. Design knowledge is also highly unstable, which borrows knowledge, methods and skills that simultaneously revitalize and fracture the practice of design. Such knowledge is a form of creative destruction that makes design at once catalytic and unpredictable.

There have been many attempts to create an overt design methodology. The Design Methods movement in the 1960s brought together a diverse group of artists and engineers to address how design could explore complex societal problems. While their efforts did propose several ways design could be systematized, the movement was too early in its thinking to where design and society was in the 1960s. John Chris Jones, a product designer who wrote Design Methods in 1970, stated the tradeoffs to using methodology:

“Methodology should not be a fixed track to a fixed destination, but a conversation about everything that could be made to happen. The language of the conversation must bridge the logical gap between past and future, but in doing so it should not limit the variety of possible futures that are discussed nor should it force the choice of a future that is unfree” (13)

Business wants to leverage design to create more differentiable products and services. Yet they run on conformity and objectivity in allocating resources and making decisions in a predictable way. Many design capabilities within businesses wither and become irrelevant because design is viewed as a downstream microeconomic activity, not one that can shape company strategy and policy. Heskett identified the main problem is that, “Designers are notoriously unable to explain themselves and this is a significant problem when working in a team or presenting ideas to business people. The opposite of tacit knowledge is explicit knowledge and this is what business people value.” (14) To executives, design and designers are viewed as too idiosyncratic to be trusted and therefore double-down on micromanaging design capabilities, which unfortunately further degrades the value of design. Design gets reduced to adoption and retention metrics, rather than changing and informing business models that then affect these metrics.

The plurality of understanding design and applying it has too much individualistic tacit knowledge and not nearly enough shared knowledge. From a lack of shared terminology, definitions, and methods which drive desired outcomes the high level of subjectivity degrades design as an understandable capability of bounded knowledge. Yet design is precisely about creating new relationships with many different types of knowledge which continually revitalizes the meaning and practice of design. If there is not an understood foundation of what design is, how can we really build on it with variations and for that matter understand the physics of capabilities and the craft of practicing design.

In an ironic twist, the vacuum about what design is created by tacit knowledge is giving way to generalized frameworks and methods that are neither design, business or any other discipline but rather help frame exploration by asking the right questions and gaining alignment on a shared response through generalized human-centered practices.

Design moving from single artifacts to systems

The historical practice of design has been rooted in addressing narrow microeconomic criteria and attributes to create single products. Design disciplines have been defined by the mediums they worked within and their skills were dedicated to the preservation of known artifacts that their clients and markets expected.

After WWII, there was a focus on leveraging new types of materials and processes shaped by the technocratic and an emerging dominance of scientific thought on addressing a wide range of societal issues. Logic and the embrace of the objective as a universal way to reason began to affect design rather than intuition which was viewed as too limiting. Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate to support an overarching purpose that adapts over time. Design as a series of disciplines has been uneven in its response to systems thinking and many times has been prodded by other disciplines to catch up.

While the Bauhaus embraced technology, it was in the context of the service to industrial production. The postwar shift to using science and technology was shaped by cybernetics and operations research. William Gordon and synectics emphasized a group as a communications network for problem solving. Christopher Alexander, the influential architect at Harvard’s Center for Cognitive Sciences was using mathematical frameworks in design, and Bruce Archer released his “Systematic Method for Designers” in 1963 which reframed the assumption of design as purely a craft and object based discipline. The mathematical was joined with the ergonomic and technologic to create a pattern language as a system. The Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm was an example of bridging the historical past of design with a systematic future by using a structured problem-solving approach of analysis and synthesis.

It was in this context that the 1962 “Conference of Systematic and intuitive design methods” in London was a counterpoint to this trend by bringing together designers, planners and engineers to address the intersections of creativity and rationality using design as a process for collaboration to facilitate better futures. This movement interplayed deductive (axioms) with abductive (guessing) modes of thinking to even out intuition and logic.

Thirty years later, the rise of the internet consolidated many decades of post-war frameworks to essentially disrupt archaic linear production models and thinking in favor of ever-changing resilient systems fueled by data, algorithms, and analytics. Design is now viewed as an approach and framework to create better human-centered systems connected through design thinking, agile and lean practices.

Unfortunately, the sheer diversity of design interpretations and hybrid designers who rely on a diverse range of knowledge bases to inform their tacit knowledge has been a drag on creating a shared understanding of how to learn and integrate systems thinking to inform their proposals. Design as a way to create the purpose, and coherence of systems that improve the human condition needs an understanding of cognitive, sociological, economic and technological knowledge that most designers do not possess.

Design as a global macroeconomic capability

With the rise of the internet and increased reliance on technology, traditional design professions had to grapple with the rise of business design, organizational design, experience design, user-experience design, and now computational design – all with little precedent. Design now relies on design research to understand the theory of mind of users and markets and connect their explicit and implicit needs to the creation of an ever growing economy based on services. At present, 70% of the United States economy is driven by services, and many objects that we use are now internet enabled so the division between products and services will become more and more integrated.

When B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore published The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage in 1999, they saw trends in the new internet economy that were event driven and increasingly personalized where new value could create price premiums. The role and meaning of design became more elastic in this new economy.

An experience is the ability of an individual or group to achieve a goal through a series of key moments over time. It addresses anticipation, interactions and transactions that shape wants, needs, desires and outcomes that provide consistent differentiable value in reaching their goal. So the level of intangibility is high and these intangibles need to be distilled into insights, principles and interactions that create a differentiable experience.

An experience, while personalized moves design up the economic ladder and requires the participation of many stakeholders, which means there is more business impact. Experience Design is the largest context for total immersion of a particular user from how anticipation is built, to the most important interactions customers have and the memories that they form. It creates products, processes, services, events, and environments with a focus placed on human-centered social/economic systems encompassing person to physical environment, person to person, person to machine and machine-to-machine relationships.

Contemporary design has now become a high-level framework to innovate by orchestrating design thinking, human-centered methods coupled with creativity and intuition to influence social processes, business logic and technologic platforms. Design has also become much more collaborative bringing together different stakeholders using their wide variety of skills and experiences to help teams explore, define, concept and refine possible futures.

Heskett succinctly stated the power of design as “It spans the capacity for abstract thought . . . which enables us to conceive of alternatives to what exists, and to realize such ideas in material terms . . . [linking] the outer worlds of nature, and of artifact, with our inner sense of ourselves and our perceptions of external reality, linking our sense of personal identity to wider patterns of cultural values.” (15)

Richard Buchanan, a design educator suggested that “Designers, are exploring concrete integrations of knowledge that will combine theory with practice for new productive purposes, and this is the reason why we turn to design thinking for insight into the new liberal arts of technological culture”. (16) While design has at times tried to be associated with science through Herbert Simon or Nigel Cross, as Victor Margolin the late design historian stated design has, is and always will be an extension of culture. Even economic theories are extensions of culture because as society changed since Adam Smith, his neoclassical model was built upon by more sophisticated economic theories like the Austrian, Institutional, New Growth, and the National system theories. As culture shifts and evolves, the meaning and practice of design will also.

Heskett does create a conundrum about the role of design as a human-centered activity (values) and as a business function (value) which designers have grappled with for decades. ” . . . the behavioral and cultural consequences of design are primary social criteria by which it should be judged. To repeat : the consequences might be in conflict with the desire for profit but they do not necessarily have to be so and reconciliation of these two aspects provides one of the most effective business tools available to enhance competitiveness.” (17)

However, while design as generality has opened it up to the masses that embrace design as a way to reach Herbert Simon’s belief to “. . . changing existing situations into preferred ones” many are not formally educated and trained designers and do not have the formal skills to manifest concepts into tangible outcomes. People from many disciplines can link design mindsets and principles to what they were educated and trained to do, but it also may dilute the effectiveness of design outcomes due to their inability to concretize human-centered intentions.

Design is this a word and a concept that has an unending number of variations. There is no overarching singular definition or philosophy of design other than to improve outcomes. Charles Eames was asked “what are the boundaries of design?” His answer : “what are the boundaries of problems?” (18) Since all fields try to make things better than when they found them, what makes design so seductive to want to associate improvement by design? It is because design is associated as a hopeful and positive activity that can channel desire into feasible choices which then become viable outcomes.

Design strives for simplicity, authenticity and essential truths and in the absence of order, it creates new order. The definition of design as an activity that explores the purpose, planning, or intention that exists behind an action, experience, or material object seems to be the most inclusive. It is a knowledge driven endeavor combining theory and practice to create new types of value.

Design in many ways has become more aligned to a general liberal art, then the root etymology of the word over 500 years ago. If it is a mindset and a framework and less a way of making, then design is becoming accepted as a qualitative way to improve outcomes for any problem. Unfortunately for many organizations design is still associated with visual form, and not as a way to address the larger social or economic contexts that affect them.

The meaning of design as an activity seems to be driven by the following attributes, rather than detailed definitions:

  • Imagination : Something created in the mind without boundary
  • Creativity : Making connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena by finding patterns
  • Planning : a specific purpose in mind that is supported by specific objectives
  • Specifying : A class, group, or kind sharing certain characteristics or qualities
  • Making : Representing through iterative cycles something that can be consumed
  • Action : Formulating a course of action that achieves a purpose

It seems as after 500 years the practice of design that now has become a popularized and globalized concept is moving up the macroeconomic ladder. The question is if the world believes in design as a wide framework for action, will the community of designers rise to the challenge as worthy collaborators where design is not owned by designers, but by the world at large?

Footnotes :

(1) Vilem Flusser, On the Word Design: An Etymological Essay, MIT Press, Design Issues, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), p.52
(2) Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, MIT Press, p. 55
(3) Cilve Dilnot, et. al. (editors), John Heskett, Design and the Creation of Value, Bloomsbury Press, p. 33
(4) Ibid, p. 168
(5) Arindam Dutta, Design: On the Global (R)Uses of a Word, Design and Culture, Volume 1, Issue 2, p. 174
(6) Dilnot, p. 76
(7) Dutta, p. 173
(8) Ibid, p. 175
(9) Flusser, p.51
(10) Tomás Maldonado (find source)
(11) Dilnot p. 09
(12) Ibid, p. 80
(13) John Chris Jones, Design Methods, Wiley & Sons, p. 73
(14) Dilnot, p. 59
(15) Ibid, p. 59
(16) Richard Buchanan, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Design Issues: Vol. VIII, Number 2 Spring 1992, p. 6
(17) Dilnot, p. 179
(18) ‘Qu’est ce que le design?’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais de Louvre, 1972dDesign moving from single artifacts to systems with the 1

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11 thoughts on “An ontological journey of the word Design

    1. Hello Rob. Thank you for your comment. The citations were disparate and came together as I was editing the post. At one point, I thought there were too many, but settled on the rationale that I was essentially editing points of view on people who spent time thinking about this topic in a way I had not.

  1. “Yet design is precisely about creating new relationships with many different types of knowledge which continually revitalizes the meaning and practice of design”

    Wow Adam. This is the most significant writ on design I have read since working with you in the late 90s. I also learned so much from you during our Mex City project. Your brilliance has continued flowering obviously.

    Before reading this, my first question to self was “are you going to be treating design as a verb or a noun?” You amazingly covered that in the first paragraphs.

    Thanks for continuing to share you brilliant mind and talents. Inspiring.

    1. Hey Ed:

      First, it is great to hear from you. We rode the dot-com era like falling off Niagara Falls!

      Thanks for your comments and that I hit some key things you were asking.

      This post was hard to write as I have been so close to the topic, it was hard to disassociate myself enough to look at it dispassionately.

  2. Excellent blog and unique topic. Comprehensive exploration of the much applied word, Design. Looking at the origins and uses of the term over…time, cultures, disciplines / professions, industries and institutions is a an intellectually stimulating exercise. Provides insights into the changing meanings and power of language in forming our concepts and their purposes.

  3. Thank you Haig. Design has had quite a journey from a specific word to a global concept. It’s many meanings and practices shows how important it is to many contexts. This blog post may start a deeper journey into this word and concept.

  4. I finally got a chance to read you Defining Design post with some focus and attention. I can see why you are considering a book on the subject: it seems that the current post could be expanded through elaboration or specific examples . . . The blog overall is impressive. Formidable.

  5. Thoroughly intriguing read, Adam. Thank you for this storied tour of design—the word and its meaning over time (since the 14th century). Part linguistic. Part definitive. All evolutionary. Your essay is a prism. One wavelength here is that design endures as an emergent, perhaps elusive, understanding (with symmetry-breaking tendencies). Design remains special to consistently compel an explanation for it. Sequels to what you described here are anticipated.

    1. Thanks Nate for your comments. Design is a prism, and breaks human values and activities into infinite wavelengths. It is difficult to take the spectrums and reverse them into white light. It seems somewhat foolhardy to try to explore this space, but I am learning alot in the process and will do my best to bring some sort of insight to this important topic.

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